Eons before Nick Cannon made a star turn in the hit movie "Drumline," and ages before his eponymous sketch comedy show began airing on Nickelodeon, and way before he was polishing his upcoming rap album and two more major motion pictures, he was just a teenage wannabe comedian. The San Diego native's stand-up routine -- mostly digs at Michael Jackson and riffs on roach life -- didn't always go over well. At his worst, he stank up the place so bad not even his mom had his back."My mother didn't think I was funny at the time," Cannon recalled this week. Once, "I got booed off the stage. . . . I try to forget about that."It has been only six years, but forgetting has become easy for the 22-year-old as he cruises Los Angeles in his shiny new Cadillac Escalade, his pockets fat with a $1.5 million check from Miramax for another film, the rapper 50 Cent blasting on the SUV's stereo.
These days he might be found chilling in New York with P. Diddy's Bad Boy crew one minute, jetting to Aspen for his mentor Will Smith's posh New Year's bash the next -- all the while watching the returns come in for "Drumline."The critically hailed film about a black college's marching band is in its fourth week and has pulled in nearly $50 million -- a feat that's impressive when you consider that it's showing on 1,600 screens -- about half as many as the rest of the Top 10 movies. In "Drumline," Cannon plays Devon Miles, a hardheaded Harlem drum prodigy who is recruited to the fictional Atlanta A&T. There, he loses the ego (mostly) and gains much-needed discipline."It's a solid coming-of-age story," Cannon says, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. He didn't always feel that way. Before "Drumline," Cannon, like much of the world, was stuck on the "band geek" stereotype. "When you first hear about a movie about marching bands, you're like, 'Yeah, that's exciting,' " he says. "That's corny."Many a romantically challenged band geek is thanking Cannon right about now. Getting some play just got easier after his portrayal of the lip-curling Devon, whose street-but-sweet persona and chemistry with the love interest crackle across the big screen. Marching band musicians have long been big cheeses on black college campuses. Since integration, those schools' athletic programs have suffered as bigger, richer programs at majority-white colleges raid the most talented prospects. As a result, sassy, spirited marching bands belting out the latest hits and doing elaborate formations at halftime have come to rival -- and often replace -- athletes as the main attraction. Other elements of black college subculture were mainstreamed by Spike Lee's 1988 movie "School Daze" and the 1987-93 TV sitcom "A Different World.""I remember watching 'School Daze' and thinking, 'Wow, there are schools like that?' " Cannon recalls. "It was hot for that time. 'Drumline' is this generation's urban college film."For impact and reach, Cannon figures "Drumline" -- directed by Chuck Stone, who launched another cultural phenomenon with his "Whassup" Budweiser campaign -- may even surpass "School Daze" and "A Different World.""It was done with so much class that it kind of stepped out of . . . the 'urban film' boundaries," he says. Just what the actor-rapper-comedian is trying to do with his triple-threat career. Cannon got into the business after graduating from high school at 16 so he could work California's comedy circuit full time. Clearly he had more hits than roaches-and-Jacko misses: Talent scouts for Nickelodeon saw his act and hired him in 1999 to warm up the live audiences while it taped programs.
He soon graduated to contributing to the variety show "Kenan and Kel" and then became one of the youngest staff writers for "Cousin Skeeter," the comedy in which Bill Bellamy was the voice of a street-smart puppet.
Rapper-turned-actor Will Smith also signed him to a development deal and executive-produced a show starring Cannon, which was finished in 2001 and sold to the WB network but never aired. (Smith also gave his protege his blessing to join Lil' Romeo and 3LW in recording an update to "Parents Just Don't Understand," Smith's hit with DJ Jazzy Jeff that produced rap music's first Grammy in 1989.)Last January, Nickelodeon decided to take Cannon up on his offer to executive-produce and star in "The Nick Cannon Show," a weekly program. The show, which airs Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., is part of a block of programs that outperforms its network and cable competition among Nickelodeon's core demographic of 2-to-11-year-olds during that time slot.On the show, he interviews celebrities such as Mary J. Blige and Britney Spears using different personas. He plays "Francis Spunkel," a b-boy from the '80s, and "LaTanya," a Sheneneh-like character who could be seen recently wearing a dress and full makeup, and chasing around the R&B star Usher.A new season begins airing next week."Nickelodeon has really been a training ground for me," Cannon said. "An actual playground. I've been able to do anything I can think of on that network."Nickelodeon has also delivered to Cannon a very young but devoted fan base -- one he hopes will follow him on his foray into music. It worked for Justin Timberlake, Spears and Christina Aguilera -- all Disney Channel alumni."What's amazing about youth programming is your fans grow up and then you get more fans who grow into you," Cannon said. "If they are your fans when you're young, they really try to stick with you."Nickelodeon made a similar calculation and signed Cannon as its first artist on a new label that is a subsidiary of Jive Records. Cannon is equally hands-on with the album, which will be released in March. He produced half the tracks himself.He has been dabbling in music through his church -- he is a proud member of the Crenshaw Christian Center in Los Angeles -- and he has always dabbled in production and rapping.So confident in his skills is Cannon that he's even done the unthinkable for a debut artist: He scrapped two tracks produced by the Neptunes, the hot team whose touch has guaranteed hits for a who's who of R&B, hip-hop and pop recording artists."They were really great songs, but I just wanted to go into another direction," he said. "It wasn't really the tracks, but what I was rapping about at the time. I wanted to more so keep it more real than just do something geared toward kids."And therein lies Cannon's biggest choice. His movie career has taken off: The romantic comedy "If You Were My Girl," a Warner Bros. film co-starring Southern Maryland-raised Christina Milian, has finished shooting. And that check from Miramax is going toward writing "The Underclassman," a comedy conceived by Cannon that he describes as "Never Been Kissed" meets "Beverly Hills Cop."His mentor Smith has proved that a high-profile acting career combined with a bubble gum "hip-pop" record will move units. But that doesn't mean you'll get respect in hip-hop circles. History has shown that guns, hos and crack-slinging aren't necessary, but rappers must have an edge."All I want to do with my album is to take hip-hop back to its essence," Cannon says. "To what it was: about fun. The early '80s and Slick Rick rapping about children's stories and LL doing 'Big Ole Butt,' it was just fun. You can still have a clubbanger where there's no negativity involved. At the same time, it's not corny."Well, stranger things have happened: Now band kids are cool.